Earlier this week, D.A. Graham, the now-former interim vice provost for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at the University of Kansas, sent out an email with the subject, “2022 MLK Jr. Day of Reflection” to all students, faculty and staff of the university.
However, shortly after the email went out, a recipient of the email forwarded it to the Lawrence Journal-World paper, along with a comparison to a previous email sent by Curtis L. Coy, who was the Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity with the Veterans Benefits Administration.
According to that comparison, the majority of Graham’s 550-word email matched Coy’s letter.
Graham, for his part, didn’t deny the copying. He admitted to the “error” saying that it was “an oversight on my part” and that he “was trying to hurry up and get the message together.”
When pressed on whether his copying was plagiarism, he said, “If you want to go technically, then yes.”
Graham did say that he was open to sending out a second email acknowledging the issue and crediting Coy. However, he said we would need to first talk with university leaders to decide if that was the correct path.
However, yesterday the story changed as Graham resigned from his position.
The announcement came in the form of an email from Provist Barbara Bichelmeyer, who said that, while she appreciated Graham’s contributions to the school, plagiarism is never acceptable and “this is a consequence that befits the action.”
That said, the split does appear to be amicable as the email went on to say, “Despite his mistake, I appreciate all D.A. and our DEIB leadership team have accomplished to build diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at KU.”
This likely brings an end to the story. However, it’s still worth taking a brief look at the case because it’s hardly unique. In fact, it’s just the latest in a growing pattern of these types of stories.
A Continuing Pattern
Graham is far from alone being in this position. Officials at William & Mary, Stockton University, West Liberty University, the University of South Carolina (my alma mater) and countless public schools have been accused of plagiarism in emails or speeches made to the public.
Some, such as former University of South Carolina President Robert Calsen and former Rochester Public School Board Superintendent Michael Muñoz resigned or were forced out after the scandals. Others, such as University of Lincoln Students’ Union CEO James Brooks and West Liberty University President W. Franklin Evans held on to their positions.
Regardless of outcome, this has been a growing trend. School and university officials, tasked with sending out more correspondence to faculty, staff and students, are facing challenges that many are not prepared for. The temptation to simply plagiarize rather than risk saying the “wrong” thing is as understandable as it is unethical.
However, that explanation doesn’t make sense for Graham’s case. As the interim vice provost for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, the message of Martin Luther King Jr. is very central to his department’s duties and objectives.
Being tasked with improving diversity, equity and inclusion on campus but not being able to speak organically about the words of Dr. King is befuddling to say the least. Though he says he was “in a hurry”, that is a similar argument to what any student would make about plagiarizing a paper with an impending deadline.
In short, there’s not much sympathy to be found here. Graham should not have been out of his depth with this task. Writing a 550 word email should not have been so laborious or time-consuming that it couldn’t be done relatively quickly and, most importantly, as someone who had worked for the school for five years, he should have been very familiar with the policies and rules that surround plagiarism.
Ultimately, the saving grace of this story is the handling of it. Both the school and Graham handled it about as well as can be expected. The whole saga unfolded in less than a week, Graham admitted to the plagiarism (albeit with some questionable language) and he handed in his resignation, giving a real conclusion to the matter.
Compare that to what we’re seeing at West Liberty University, and it’s easy to see how much worse this really could have been.
The university and, to an extent, Graham should be commended for their handling of this case. Swift action with a decisive conclusion is what is best for the school and its students.
However, this case should serve as a warning to others in Graham’s position. It may be tempting to plagiarize that email or that speech, but it can be found out and, when it is, there are often serious consequences.
Faculty and staff at schools need to understand, when you communicate with the public you need to hold yourself to the same standards you hold your students, if not higher ones.
It’s a simple approach that far too many officials lose sight of, damaging both their careers and the schools that they work for.